Water Scarcity is a Major Global Threat, Warns World Economic Forum

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Drought hits the Loire River, France, 2011. Photo credit: Stephane Mahe/Reuters

By Jon Fern, staff writer for Save The Water™ | February 9, 2015

The report from the 2014 World Economic Forum has warned that water scarcity is the third biggest threat to the global economy, after fiscal dilemmas and joblessness. The Forum, based on assessments by respondents who had to choose from 31 pre-set risks according to severity and likelihood, returned the verdict that: ‘The risks of highest concern to respondents are fiscal crises in key economies, structurally high unemployment and underemployment, and water crises.’(1)

‘Too little water can also have systemic impacts,’ the report went on to warn. ‘Drought in Russia in 2010 led to restrictions on agricultural exports, causing the price of staple grains to rise across North Africa and the Middle East. The resulting food shortages and price rises aggravated the tensions that led to the Arab Spring. Some studies suggest that water scarcity could reduce grain production by as much as 30%.’

This is not the first time that water shortages have come under the radar of world leaders looking to ascertain the biggest threats to human civilization. Ban Ki-moon told the Water Resources Group annual meeting in 2013, which concluded that water scarcity was the second greatest threat to our world, that he had ‘been travelling to many places in Africa and… seen many women and girls walk endlessly just to get some water. It is quite moving and sad to see what is happening.(2)

‘When I was visiting Darfur in 2000 people became violent and I was threatened,’ Ban Ki-moon added. ‘When they came towards me, I said I am here to bring you water. All the violent crowd became quiet. Water is life; that is what I have been saying all the time.’

The 2014 WEF report highlighted the tendency for water scarcity to exacerbate cross-border disputes: ‘In the future, geopolitical tensions over access to strategic water resources could become more systemically impactful, and water shortage coupled with poverty and societal instability could weaken intra-state cohesion. Because of the systemic importance of water for global economic activity, any failings in its planning, management and use in one country can ripple across the world.’ Since the Forum was convened to assess strictly economic issues, it is interesting to note that water featured so highly as a stressor in global politics. Ban Ki-moon’s earlier assertion that ‘water is life’ certainly seems to ring through the report, which goes on to suggest that water management is potentially too complex for individual organisations or governments to tackle alone.

With populations continuing to grow, placing greater demands on freshwater supplies, nations will have to cooperate to a much greater extent than is currently happening. ‘Water is equally key for energy production,’ the report states. ‘While the world population grew fourfold in the 20th century, freshwater withdrawals grew nine times.’(3)

Changes in climate are only making matters worse. Brazil’s three most populous states, Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais, are facing their worst drought in 80 years, with water shortages hitting industries at a time when the economy is already struggling. Energy supplies are also being impacted, with hydroelectric dams reducing their electricity output.(4)

But the situation is not entirely hopeless. The Alliance for Water Stewardship is seeking to establish an international standard for water conservation, and footprinting tools such as the Water Footprint Network have been initiated. The United Nations CEO Water Mandate, together with the World Economic Forum, is spearheading the international water conservation initiative, while local projects measuring water use and mitigating river basin impacts are supported by organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund. However, it is going to take real action and a lot more joined-up thinking on a governmental level to address the very real threat to our world posed by water scarcity not only now, but perhaps even more pressingly in the future.(5)

To read more about water scarcity and its effect worldwide, visit http://savethewater.org/category/water-shortage/.




  1. World Economic Forum, 2014. Global Risks 9th Edition. World Economic Forum. http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GlobalRisks_Report_2014.pdf Accessed 26th January 2015.
  1. Confino, J., 2013. Davos 2013: water scarcity is ‘second most important world risk’ The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/davos-water-scarcity-second-important-world-risk Accessed 26th January 2015.
  1. Walton, B., 2015. Report: Water Is a Top-three Global Risk, Says World Economic Forum. Circle of Blue. http://www.circleofblue.org/waternews/2014/world/water-top-three-global-risk-says-world-economic-forum-report/ Accessed 26th January 2015.
  1. Uncredited, 2015. Brazil’s most populous region facing worst drought in 80 years. BBC World News. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-30962813 Accessed 26th January 2015.
  1. Uncredited, 2015. Threats: Water Scarcity. World Wildlife Fund. http://www.worldwildlife.org/threats/water-scarcity Accessed 26th January 2015.


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